Saturday, March 10, 2012

An illuminating discovery: Ludwig Wittgenstein’s first academic studies were in mechanical and then aeronautical engineering.

The following is a note I shared earlier today with friends, colleagues and two mentors. A number have been concerned as I have, with broader philosophhical and epistemological implications of the paradigm that systems engineering and system dynamics modeling embody. As friends (and former Ph.D. students) know, Wittgenstein has been my favorite philosopher ever since I first encountered his work. My note follows:

Dear Friends, Colleagues and Mentors,

I was looking into the biography of the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, this morning, and came across the following interesting fact, of which I had been unaware. Wittgenstein began his formal studies in mechanical engineering and received a diploma in the field. He then turned to aeronautical engineering. As those interested in his life know, Wittgenstein’s reading of Bertrand Russell’s Foundations of Mathematics redirected his interests toward pure mathematics. However he must have, initially, viewed Russell’s work through the lens of his early training, which would have included early incarnations of the mathematics of feedback control. A brief excerpt from his Wikipedia biography follows.

He began his studies in mechanical engineering at the Technische Hochschule in Charlottenburg, Berlin, on 23 October 1906, lodging with the family of a professor there, Dr Jolles. He attended for three semesters, and was awarded a diploma on 5 May 1908, after developing an interest in aeronautics.[58] He arrived at the Victoria University of Manchester in the spring of 1908 to do his doctorate, full of plans for aeronautical projects, including designing and flying his own plane. He conducted research into the behavior of kites in the upper atmosphere, experimenting at a meteorological observation site near Glossop.[59] He also worked on the design of a propeller with small jet engines on the end of its blades, something he patented in 1911 and which earned him a research studentship from the university in the autumn of 1908.[60]

(As a personal aside, we prepared the computer programs for presenting Mankind at the Turning Point: The Second Report to the Club of Rome in the computing centre of the Berlin Technische Hochschule. As we worked late into the night, we were not aware that, perhaps, Wittgenstein’s ghost was empowering us.)

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